We should have known from the start Paul had some kind of plan in the back of his head when he suggested this. He’s the kind of guy that will cheer up his friends when they’re feeling down, but he does it with a couple of shots and an exhortation to, “Toughen up, man. Things will get better.” He doesn’t suggest train rides to foreign countries so we can be part of a festival. Still, we were happy to make the journey.
And then the details started to change.
“No, no, trust me. We’ve got to be in town by afternoon on the fifth.
“Well, we’re not really going to go to Salzburg. We’re going to a small town a couple miles outside. It’ll be great, you’ll see. More authentic.
“Trust me, guys. Trust me.”
We didn’t trust him, of course. He was up to something. But we’d already made the plans and weaseled out of school and the internships and bought the tickets and arranged for transportation to the village with the unpronounceable name. We were in lockstep with Paul’s scheme, whatever it was. There was nothing else to be done but see it through to whatever end may come and hope we were still standing on the other side. But even the promise of that had its own strange, irrational allure to us. Years of friendship with Paul had taught us that memory is regret and nostalgia in equal measure.
We stepped off the train in Salzburg on the morning of the fifth to find a light snow on the ground. Our breath clouded and hung heavy in air a bit colder than London’s, but not so much so we weren’t prepared. The sky was grey and overcast with low hanging clouds that threatened more snow to come. Paul looked around and grinned. “This is perfect. Come on, let’s find our ride.” I studied the streets, the shops, the faces of the people we passed, and I commented that there didn’t seem to be an especially festive spirit in the air.
“I think you’ve oversold us on this trip, man. Oktoberfest this ain’t.”
“It’ll be different in the town. You’ll see.”
We piled into a cab with our small bags and we took off. The density of the city thinned greatly once we were out of Salzburg proper, and we drove on roads that wound aimlessly through hills and alongside more streams and lakes than I could count. It reminded me of the way that countryside surrounded London, only more so. The way that people and concrete could suddenly give way to rolling green hills. It was an experience almost completely alien to me, having grown up in the unending sprawl of the San Francisco Bay Area.
Our driver talked to us a little bit in passable English, but it was clear that it was not his first language and he was doing so more out of politeness than anything else. “You are American, yeah?”
Paul took the lead, as he usually did. “That’s right.”
“You come for the Krampuslauf?”
Paul grinned. “Right again.”
“Cram-puss-louff?” Jake hissed in Paul’s ear. Paul just shrugged.
“It’s good fun. Not so much in big city, but in small town, people know how to have fun.”
“That’s why we’re with you and not in Salzburg. More fun, right?”
The man smiled at that, but it darkened some after only a moment. “You be careful, though. People from other country, they come for fun, but they have too much fun. Like too much drink. It can be dangerous, yeah?”
Paul grinned all the wider. “Don’t worry about us, friend. We’re good at having just the right amount of fun.”
A short while later, we pulled into town and the driver dropped us off in front of the hostel Paul had reserved rooms at. The difference between the town and Salzburg was palpable the moment we set foot on the streets. There was an energy in the air, and people were walking around smiling, laughing and joking with each other. I smiled despite myself. Jake and I looked at each other, and he returned my optimism. Despite our misgivings, Paul had found something wonderful.
He turned to us smiling. “It doesn’t look like much now, I know, but trust me. This place is going to get wild once the sun sets.”
I blinked in confusion. “Like, Oktoberfest wild, or something else?”
“It’s Krampusnacht, man. The night before the Feast of St. Nicholas, folks dress up like this monster, Krampus, and run wild. There’s drinking, there’s dancing. People will give you shots on the street. You can pick up girls and just throw them over your shoulder. It’s like St. Patrick’s Day meets Halloween, man.”
“What about Oktoberfest?” Jake said, a note of irritation in his voice. There was a smirk on his face, though, so I knew he was warming up to the idea much faster than I was.
“Come on, come on! Let’s toss our shit in the room, get a couple drinks in us, and then get some costumes!”